The Secret of the Silver Car
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"Think of it," he heard a woman say, laughing, "lights out at twelve! How primitive and delightful." She yawned a little. "I'm looking forward to it; we all stay up too late."
"Good night, Duchess," he heard the man say. "Sleep well and pray I may be in form."
"Duchess!" In the old days Anthony Trent would have thrilled at the title for it meant invariably jewels of price and the gathering of the very rich. But he was waiting outside the masterpiece of Inigo Jones not for any of those precious glittering stones for which he had sacrificed all his prospects of fame and honor but for the documents which he believed were hidden in the iron box, that ridiculous "pete" covered with black English oak. It was another of the "hunches" which had come to him. He had never been more excited about any of the many jobs he had undertaken.
As he sat among the roses waiting for time to pass he reflected that the few failures that had been his had not been attended by any danger. He had lost the pearls that were wont to encircle the throat of a great opera singer because her maid had chosen an awkward hour to prosecute her amour with a chauffeur. The diamonds of the Mexican millionaire's lady were lost to him because the house took fire while he was examining the combination of the safe. But they would wait. He would yet have them both. The booty for which he had come tonight was more precious than anything he had ever tried for. It was probably the key to safety that he sought. Trent did not doubt that there was a document in the safe which would enable him to hold something over the head of Private William Smith.
He waited until twelve had struck from the stable clock and the terrace had been deserted a half-hour. To open the doors leading from the terrace was simple. Anthony Trent always carried with him on business bent two strips of tool steel with a key-blade at each end. With these two "T" and "V" patterns he could open the world's locks. A nine inch jimmy was easy to secrete. This was of the highest quality of steel and looked to the uninitiated very much like a chisel. But it differed from a chisel by having at its other end two brass plates set at right angles to one another. These could be adjusted to what angles were needed by turning countersunk screw bolts. It was the ideal tool for yale spring locks.
He did not need it here. The doors opened at will with the "V" pattern skeleton key. Great oriental rugs deadened sound and the boards of the house were old, seasoned and silent. He found his way to the room in which the colonel had received him with little difficulty. First of all he opened the window and saw that he could spring clear out of it at a bound and land in a bed of flowers only three feet below. Then he came to the antiquated safe. The combinations were ridiculously easy. His trained ear caught the faint sounds as he turned the lever easily. These told him exactly the secret of the combination. It was not two minutes work to open the doors.An inner sheeting of steel confronted him but was opened by his jimmy. It was not safe to turn on the electric lights. In so big an establishment with so many outdoor servants there might be many to remark an unexpected illumination. His little torch showed him all he wanted to know.
Colonel Langley had the soldiers' neatness. There were few valuables in the safe. They would be presumably in his banker's strong boxes. There were packets of letters tied up and one long envelope. On it was inscribed, "Not to be Opened. In case of my death this must be destroyed by my heir, Reginald Langley." On the envelope was the date, July 27, 1918, and the single word, "Ladigny."
Ladigny was a little village in France forever memorable by the heroic stand of the City of London regiment when it lost so terribly and refused to retreat. Trent opened the envelope in such a way that no trace of the operation was seen. Then for ten minutes he read steadily. Almost a half hour was expended in copying part of it in a note book. Then the envelope was resealed and the safe closed. As he had worn gloves there was no fear of incriminating finger prints. He did not think anyone would notice that a jimmy had been used. Then he closed the safe and its outer doors of black oak.
He permitted himself the luxury of a cigarette. He had done a good night's work. If Private William Smith had sufficient evidence to place Anthony Trent behind the bars the master criminal had sufficient certain knowledge now to shut the mouth of the man he was tracking. Who would have thought a man reared in such a family would have fallen so low! It is a human failure to make comparisons whereby others invariably shine with a very weak light, but Anthony Trent was saying no more than the truth when he told himself that with Smith's opportunities he would never have taken to his present calling.
With Smith's opportunities he would be sitting in a big room like this and sitting in it without fear of interruption. The strain of the last few days had not been agreeable and this strain must grow in intensity as he grew older. It was always in such peaceful surroundings as these that Trent felt the bitterness of crime even when successful.
He stopped suddenly short in his musing and crushed the bright tip of his cigarette into blackness beneath his foot. Someone was fumbling with the doorhandle, very quietly as though anxious not to disturb him. He cursed the carelessness that had allowed him to leave it unlocked. He had not behaved in a professional way at all. Very cautiously he rose to his feet, meaning to leave by the open window when the door opened. Trent sank back into the shadow of the big chair. To make a dash for the window would mean certain detection. To stay motionless might mean he could escape later. Similar immobility had saved him ere this.
The intruder closed the door and his sharp ears told him it was locked. Then a soft-treading form moved slowly through the dim light and closed the window, shut off his avenue of escape, and pulled across it two curtains which shut out all light. There were two other high windows in the room and across each one was pulled the light-excluding curtains. Then there was a click and the room sprang into brilliance.
Anthony Trent saw the intruder at the same moment the intruder stared into his face.
It was a girl in evening dress, a beautiful girl with chestnut hair and a delicious profile. She wore an elaborate evening gown of a delicate blue and carried in her hand a fan made of a single long ostrich plume. Her hair was elaborately coiffured. She was, in fine, a woman of the beau monde, a fitting guest in such a house as this. But what was she doing in this room at one o'clock at night when the rest of the household had long been abed?
The girl saw a slender but strongly built man of something over thirty with a pale, clean-shaven face, shrewd almost hard eyes and a masterful nose. He looked like a rising English barrister certain at some time to be a judge or at the least a King's Counsel. He was dressed in a well cut suit of dark blue with a pin stripe. He wore brown shoes and silk socks. She noted he had long slender hands perfectly kept.
He rose to his feet and smiled at her a little quizzically.
"Really," he said, "you almost frightened me. I was sitting in the dark making plans for the glorious 'first,' which has been here almost an hour, when I heard you trying to open the door."
There was no doubt in her mind but that he was one of the guests who had arrived from London on the late train and had not changed to evening dress. There was a train due at Thorpe station at half past ten and the motor trip would take forty minutes more.
"I had no idea anyone was here," she said truthfully, "or I shouldn't have come. You see one can't sleep early even if one is sent to bed as we all were tonight." She glanced at the clock. "I'm not shooting tomorrow but if you are why don't you turn in? You know Colonel Langley is a fearful martinet where the shooting is concerned and insists that every bird is killed cleanly."
It was plain that she wished to get rid of him. Trent was frankly puzzled. The girl had shown no fear or nervousness. Ordinarily the conventions would have had their innings and she would have hesitated at the possibility of being found alone with a good looking man at such an hour. She would have excused herself and left him in the belief that he was a guest she would meet tomorrow at dinner and dance with after it. But she showed no such intention. He knew enough about women to see that she had no intention of waiting for the pleasure of a friendly chat. She had rather a haughty type of face and spoke with that quick imperious manner which he had observed in British women of rank or social importance.
"I have neuralgia," he said amiably, "and I prefer to sit here than go to bed. Perhaps you left something here? Can I help you to find it?"
"I came for a book. Colonel Langley was talking about some African hunting story your Mr. Roosevelt wrote."
So she knew him for an American. Well, she would find the American not easily to be gulled. There came to him the memory of another night in Fifth Avenue when a woman who seemed to be of fashion and position had so completely fooled him and had been left in possession of a large sum of currency.
He moved toward a bookcase in which were a collection of books on fishing and shooting.
"'African Game Trails,'" he said, "here it is."
There was no doubt in his mind that the look she threw at him was not one of complete amiability. She wanted him to go. He asked himself why. It would have been easy for her to go and leave him, and the best way out of the difficulty, unless she had come for one specific purpose. If she had come for something concealed in the room and needed it badly enough she would try and wait until he went. Trent was certain she had no suspicion as to his own mission. In so big a house as Dereham Old Hall fifty guests could be entertained easily and it was unlikely she should know even half of them. He had observed that it was not the fashion in England to introduce indiscriminately as in his own country. Guests were introduced to their immediate neighbors; but that appalling custom whereby one unfortunate is expected to memorize the names of all present at a gulp was not popular. Because she did not know him would not lead to suspicion. He was in no danger. Even a servant coming in would see in him only a friend of his employer.
"Thank you," she said, taking the book with an appearance of interest. "Do you know I never thought to see Americans at Dereham Old Hall with the single exception of Reginald's old friend Conington Warren. Colonel Langley is so conservative but the war has broadened everyone hasn't it and stupid national prejudices are breaking down."
"Conington Warren here?" he asked.
"He lives in England now," she told him, "his physicians warned him that prohibition would kill him so they simply prescribed a country where he could still take this cocktail. You know him of course?"
"A little," he said; she wondered why he smiled so curiously. He wondered what this beautiful girl would say if she knew it was at Conington Warren's mansion in Fifth avenue that he had started his career as a criminal. So that great sportsman, owner of thoroughbreds and undeniable shot, was in this very house! After all it was not a strange coincidence. The well known Americans who love horse and hound with the passion of the true sportsman are to be seen in the great houses of England more readily than the mushroom financier.
"What other people are there here you know?" she demanded.
"I can't tell you till tomorrow," he returned, "I only said a word or two to the Duchess. She deplored having to go to bed so early and was disappointed at not being able to dance."
"She is one of my dearest friends," the girl answered.
"Which means you see her every fault," he laughed.
"Isn't your neuralgia better?" she asked after a pause.
Anthony Trent shook his head.
"I shan't sleep all night," he said despondently. "Going to bed would only make it worse."
She was obviously put out at this statement.
"Then you'll stop here all night?"
"At all events until it gets light. It's only two o'clock now. If you are keen on big game hunting you won't sleep if you begin that book."
"You'll frighten the servants in the morning," she said later.
"I'll tip them into confidence," he assured her.
The girl was growing nervous. There were a hundred symptoms from the tapping of her little feet on the rug to the fidgeting with the book and the meaningless play with her fan. She started when a distant dog bayed the moon and dropped her book. It rolled under a table and Trent picked it up. But when he handed it back to her there was an air of excitement about him, an atmosphere of triumph which puzzled her.
"You look as though you enjoyed hunting for books under tables."
"I enjoy any hunting when I get a reward for my trouble."
"And what did you find?" she asked "a little mouse under the chair?"
"I found a key," he said.
"Someone must have dropped it," she said idly.
"Not a door key," he returned, "but the key to a mystery. Being a woman you are interested in mysteries that have a beautiful society girl as their heroine of course?"
"I really must disappoint you," she said rather coldly, "and I don't quite understand why you are not quick to take the many hints I have dropped. Can't you see I want to sit here alone and think? Your own room will be just as comfortably furnished. In a sense this is a sort of second home to me. Mrs. Langley and I are related and this room is an old and favorite haunt when I'm depressed. Is it asking very much that you leave me here alone?"
"Under ordinary conditions no," he said suavely.
"These are ordinary conditions," she persisted.
"I'm not sure," he retorted. "Tell me this if you dare. Why have you the combination to a safe written on a little piece of mauve paper and concealed in the book on your lap?"
She turned very pale and the look she gave him turned his suspicion into a desire to protect her. The woman of the world air dropped from her and she looked a frightened pathetic and extraordinarily lovely child.
"What shall I do?" she cried helplessly. "You are a detective?"
"Not yet," he said smiling, "although later I intend to be. But I'm not here even as a great amateur. Consider me merely a notoriously good shot suffering equally from neuralgia and curiosity. You have the combination of a safe concealed in this room and you want me to go to bed so that you may take out wads of bank notes and pay your bridge debts. Is that right so far?"
"You are absolutely wrong," she cried with spirit. "I need no money and have no debts. There are no jewels in the safe."
"Letters of course," he said easily.
She did not speak for a moment. He could see she was wondering what she dare tell him. She could not guess that he knew of the three packages of letters each tied with green ribbon. It was, he supposed, the old story of compromising letters. Innocent enough, but letters that would spell evil tidings to the jealous fianc?. They might have been written to Colonel Langley. Men of that heroic stamp often appealed to sentimental school girls and the colonel was undeniably handsome in his cold superior way. His heart ached for her. She was suffering. What had seemed so easy was now become a task of the greatest difficulty.
"Yes," she said deliberately, "letters. Letters I must have."
"Do you suppose I can stand by and see my host robbed?"
"If you have any generosity about you you can in this instance. I only want to destroy one letter because if it should ever be discovered it will hurt the man I love most in the world."
Anthony Trent groaned. He had guessed aright. There was some man of her own class and station who did not love her well enough to overlook some little silly affectionate note sent to the beau sabreur Langley perhaps a half dozen years before. It was a rotten thing to keep such letters. He looked at the girl again and cursed his luck that she was already engaged. Then he sighed and remembered that even were she free it could never be his lot to marry unless he confessed all. And he knew that to a woman of the type he wanted to marry this confession would mean the end of confidence the beginning of despair.
"I shall not stop you," he said.
She looked at him eagerly.
"And you'll never tell?"
"Not if they put me through the third degree."
"But … oughtn't you to tell?" she asked.
"Of course," he admitted, "but I won't. I can see you are wondering why. I'll tell you. I've been in just such a position – and I did what you are going to do."
Without another word she went swiftly to the concealed safe and began to manipulate the lock. For five minutes she tried and then turned to him miserably.
"It won't open," she wailed.
"I'll have a shot at it," he said gaily, and went down on his knees by her side. He soon found out why it remained immovable. It was an old combination. She did not understand his moves as he went through the same procedure which had opened it before. She only saw that the doors swung back. She did not see him pry the iron sheathing back with the jimmy. It was miraculously easy.
Then he crossed the room to his chair and lighted another cigarette. "Help yourself," he cried and picked up the book which had held the combination.
The girl's back was to him and he could not see what she was doing. He heard the scratch of a match being lighted and saw her stooping over the stone fireplace. She was burning her past. Then he heard her sigh with relief.
"I shall never forget what you have done for me," she said holding out her hand.
"It was little enough," he said earnestly.
"You don't know just how much it was," the girl returned, "or how grateful I shall always be to you. If I hadn't got that letter! I shouldn't have got it but for you. And to think that tomorrow we shall be introduced as one stranger to another. I'm rather glad I don't know your name or you mine. It will be rather fun won't it, being introduced and pretending we've never met before. If you are not very careful the Duchess will suspect we share some dreadful secret."
"The Duchess is rather that way inclined, isn't she?" he said.
He held the hand she offered him almost uncomfortably long a time. She would look for him tomorrow in vain. He supposed she would begin by asking if there were any other Americans there except Conington Warren. After a time she would find he was not a guest of the Langleys. She would come at last to know what he was. And with this knowledge there would come contempt and a deliberate wiping his image from her mind. Anthony Trent had no sentimental excuses to offer. He had chosen his own line of country.
He looked at her again. It would be the last time. Perhaps there was a dangerously magnetic quality about his glance for the girl dropped her eyes.
"Faustus," he said abruptly, "sold his soul for a future. I think I'd be willing to barter mine for a past."
"Au revoir," she said softly.
When she had closed the door he walked across the room to shut the safe. What secrets of hers, he wondered, had been shut up there so long. He found himself in a new and strange frame of mind. Why should he be jealous of what she might have written in the letter that was now ashes? She had probably thought hero-worship was love. She had a splendid face he told himself. High courage, loyalty and breeding were mirrored in it. He wondered what sort of a man it was who had won her.
He looked at the neatly-tied bundle of letters. It seemed as though they had hardly been touched. Suddenly he turned to the compartment where the long letter had lain, the letter from which he had made so many extracts, the letter it was imperative Colonel Langley should believe to be intact.
It was gone. In the hearth there were still some burned pages. He could recognize the watermark.
Anthony Trent had amiably assisted an unknown girl to destroy a letter whose safety meant a great deal to him. If Colonel Langley were to discover the loss it would be easy enough to put the blame upon the bicycle-riding American who had pretended to be a friend of Private William Smith.
As he thought it over Anthony Trent saw that the girl in blue had not lied to him, had not sought to entrap him by gaining his sympathy as the "Countess" had succeeded in doing before another open safe in New York. He had assumed one thing and she had meant another.
What was William Smith to this unknown beauty? Trent gritted his teeth. He was going to find out. At all events he now knew the real name of the private soldier who had shared the dug-out with him. The next thing was to find out where he lived.
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